“If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women: they do not read them in a true light: they misapprehend them, both for good and evil: their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend.”
After the sweeping success of her first published work, Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte set out to create a completely different type of story. This was to be a real story, about the struggles of real people. Amidst the heartache caused by her own family's tragedies, Charlotte joined many other Victorian writers by creating a novel meant to highlight the problems facing their society.
Set in Yorkshire in 1811-12, Shirley opens with mill owner Robert Moore's delivery of new machinery. Because of the large debt his mill is in, Moore has had to lay off several workers and this new machinery will only help him lay off more. His seeming lack of care for the poverty his former workers now find themselves in causes much unrest with many threatening to harm the machinery and Moore himself. One of the comforts Moore has is his friendship with Caroline Helstone, the orphaned niece of the local parson. Though he has feelings for her, Moore distances himself from Caroline since she is penniless and he cannot afford to marry solely for love.
The arrival of an independent heiress to the neighborhood causes quite a stir. Orphaned and having no brothers, Shirley is now a landowner with many tenants, including Robert Moore, and she runs the business matters on her own. She and Caroline quickly become friends and Caroline is fascinated by this strong, independent female. As time passes, Caroline notices a certain preference growing between Robert and Shirley, and she dreads seeing the man she loves married to her best friend. Tensions between mill owners and workers grow, secrets are revealed, and a new arrival further complicates the love triangle. There are decisions Shirley must make to bring resolution to this chaotic situation.
My Review (Caution - Spoilers):
Those who have read my blog know that I am a huge fan of the Brontes, especially Charlotte's work. My quest to read all of their works is slowly drawing to a close and Shirley is my next to last one. Though it had a bit of popularity in it's original publication, it is no longer as well-known among readers today. And that is for good reason.
Though you find some basic similarities in subject matter between Shirley and Jane Eyre, that is as close as you come to comparison. This sweeping social novel is a far cry from the intimate Gothic romance of her earlier work. Here, Charlotte tries to portray the all too real struggles of the poor in industrial England. She takes shots at the government, the church, and greedy owners not only for not helping address the issues, but also for creating the problems in the first place. She also addresses the role of women in society. Though Shirley is an independent woman who has proven her ability to manage her own affairs, she is still expected to marry and turn over everything to her husband. She, Caroline, and all the other women are meant only to marry, or to become lonely spinsters and governesses. I found the use of a traditionally male name for this independent female character to be very intelligent, and it even caused the name to become a predominantly female name. But though Charlotte was doing battle against many traditional views, readers did not find it as shocking as Jane Eyre.
And therein lies the problem with this novel. When it comes to great Gothic novels with startling and shocking ideas, nobody does it better than the Brontes. But Charlotte just wasn't meant for the relatively tame social novel. The story is fairly boring, the romances uninteresting, and even the peculiar Shirley cannot really hold our attention. Part of me thinks that if this story had been told in the first person by Shirley, it might have been more interesting, but our omniscient narrator doesn't really do much except chide society for its faults. All in all, it fails to meet the same quality of social novels like those by Thackery, Gaskell, and Dickens.
So is this something you should read? It all depends. Us Bronte devotees have a bit of an obligation to read it, even if we don't really enjoy it. For the casual reader, I would suggest sticking to novels like North and South for a better representation of a Victorian social novel.